In our world of constant change, many entrenched paradigms and worldviews are being challenged by marginalized voices. As a patriotic American, I consider these healthy debates as another stage in the series of progressive movements, like civil rights, feminism, gay rights and other movements that started as underdogs and outsiders to the established power structure and had to battle at great expense for every bit of progress they won. The 19th century Irish fought to be included as equals in America, followed by the Jews and various other new groups. Eventually, the efforts of each of these groups paid off, and these movements reinvented and strengthened our nation.
However, pluralism should also go beyond the inclusion of different racial and ethnic groups within the paradigms of a monolithic culture. There needs to be a welcoming of perspectives that both complement and occasionally compete with the dominant Western mindset. As the recent geopolitical trends reveal, many Americans, even at the highest levels of government, academia and media, are often unequipped to deal with the growing resistance to the imposition of Western frameworks upon other traditions. Globalization is not going to be the Westernization of the globe. Budding discourse outside the purview of academia is increasingly challenging the monolithic and hegemonic position that Western ideals have assumed through the past few centuries.
Particularly misleading has been the West’s reliance upon foreign cronies (often positioned as institutional “experts”) who reproduce and propagate the same Eurocentrism (or should we call it “American-centrism”) that they have learnt by mimicry from Western institutions. They do this largely to gain admission into the Western Grand Narrative and they do a disservice to long-term American interests.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of many Indians who are in humanities and English language media, located both in the West and in India. They have found that such mimicry serves them well in their fast-track quests for greater name recognition and prominence than would be achieved if they were to expose the establishment’s blind spots.
Globalization requires a challenge to the well-entrenched discourse: Dissenting public intellectuals should be given a fair chance to articulate from outside the walls of the academic and big media fortresses. Given the expanding Indian-American community and the increasing importance of India in the American mind, new minority Indian-American voices have emerged outside the establishments’ walls, and these are very slowly being taken note of, if not always sympathetically.
When Washington Post was recently approached by the public relations campaigns emanating from Emory University and other supporters of the powerful Wendy Doniger, a door was opened for the Post to play a responsible role in bringing out serious blind spots of Eurocentrism/American-centrism that reside deep in America’s higher education. As shown below, the Post bungled up this opportunity by regurgitating the narratives supplied to it by the establishment of India Studies.
Washington Post’s front-page article entitled, “Wrath Over a Hindu God: U.S. Scholars’ Writings Draw Threats From Faithful,” by Shankar Vedantam (April 10, 2004; Page A01) misrepresents the topic by failing to highlight the central issues being debated, namely, systemic ideological biases within academia, while caricaturing the community’s dissenting intellectuals in ways that approach Hinduphobia. Its strategic timing on Easter weekend, which is charged with Christian emotions especially after the “Passion” movie, was a serious setback to America’s pluralism. It has the effect of misdirecting the casual reader towards an intellectual cul-de-sac and away from serious inquiry. The Post’s article could discourage further dissenting discourse, which would stifle much needed reform and progress within academic scholarship.
It is good that government corruption and corporate corruption have come under considerable public attention in the US. But academic corruption, the core issue that I have tried to examine for the past several years, remains largely ignored by the public. Just because this corruption trades not in conventional monetary terms but in terms of career advancements, book sales, political ideological promotion and evangelism does not make it any less harmful. The biases in the Post’s article (as explained below) illustrate the further need to look into media corruption.
The key issues deserving examination in both cases are these: Who controls the discourse, how do they exert control over it, and what are its consequences?
Government corruption in countries like India is often the result of a concentration of power over the control of commerce. Analogously, channels of knowledge distribution around the world are often controlled by vested interests, and I have highlighted this extensively in the case of knowledge about India and especially about Hinduism. A small subset of Western-controlled knowledge producers about India control the academic journals, conferences, grants, PhDs, appointments and award committees. If a similar control existed over commercial distribution channels, it would be grounds for anti-trust action against the monopolists.
For exposing this and especially for naming specific parties (whom I have referred to as the “cartel”), the wrath of the gods of the India Studies establishment has descended upon me. The results of this wrath are evident in the manner by which they successfully manipulated the Post’s journalism. (For more about the cartel, see my The Peer-Review Cartel , Cartel’s Politics , Cartel’s Theories , Asymmetric Dialog of Civilizations ).
Power and the construction of “truth”
At the same time, the Post’s article opens up an opportunity to see how the media, as a channel of information distribution, is sometimes manipulated by vested interests that have the power to do so. It is an interesting hypothesis outside the scope of this article that the same nexus of power exerts an unfair advantage over both the academic discourse and the English language media in the case of India-related writings, because the academicians often function as public intellectuals and media experts.
Alvin Toffler explained how knowledge is constructed by those in control of the process: “Virtually every ‘fact’ used in business, political life and every day human relations is derived from other ‘facts’ or assumptions that have been shaped, deliberately or not, by the preexisting power structure. Every ‘fact’ thus has a power history and what might be called a power future.”
Former US Ambassador to India, John Galbraith, went further and blatantly downgraded the claims of objectivity in these so-called truths: “[T]he required doctrine need not be subject to serious empirical proof…It need not even be seriously persuasive. It is the availability of an ascertainable doctrine that is important; it is that availability and not the substance that serves.”
The Post’s article dishes out what Galbraith calls “the availability of an ascertainable doctrine” that is devoid of “substance” or “empirical proof.” The established doctrine is promoted as a given without analysis.
Nietzsche explained the harmful consequences of such pre-packaged bias that enjoys widespread media distribution: “The reputation, name, and appearance, the usual measure and weight of a thing, what it counts for – originally almost always wrong and arbitrary – grows from generation unto generation, merely because people believe in it, until it gradually grows to be a part of the thing and turns into its very body. What at first was appearance becomes in the end, almost invariably, the essence and is effective as such.”
Just as Wendy’s Children trivialize Indian texts and practices by publishing highly influential caricatures of Hinduism, so also the Post’s article illustrates how the dominant media can trivialize the issues being raised by the dissenters. Both play into the hands of Hinduphobics, such as aggressive evangelists, Indian communists (including those who relocated to US campuses after the collapse of Soviet sponsorship in India) and other subversives who regard the fabric of Indian society as a scourge and an obstacle to their idea of “progress.” (For more on this subversion, see my Preventing America’s Nightmare , Axis of Neocolonialism ).
Edward Said’s important book, “Orientalism,” after being fiercely attacked, created a whole new trope in the discourse on colonialism. However, the scholars who are now in this field (known as post-colonial studies) are themselves a part of the academic empire controlled by the West. The brilliance of this new empire is that, whereas the British Empire relied mainly upon European scholars of Indology (with Indians largely as native informants) to construct and propagate ideas about Indians, the new empire has successfully lured ambitious Indians into prestigious jobs provided they sublimate their own identities and serve the dominant culture
This makes the criticism of the biased discourse on India much harder, because the strategy has been to deploy Indian intellectual sepoys against any Indian dissenting voices. The same scholar who is deeply invested in subtle and sophisticated India/Hindu-phobia in his/her day job in a Western institution is also charming and manipulative at impressing and disarming the fellow-Indians. S/he easily slips into Indian attire, recites Urdu poetry, even sings bhajans, and expresses great sympathy for India’s poor. In fact, if it were not for their artificially Indianized unctuous obeisance to the prevailing powers, many such Indian intellectuals would get devalued in the eyes of the Western institutions they serve.
Consequently, despite its many positive contributions to Western civilization, Hinduism continues to be studied using Western chauvinistic paradigms by packaging the “Hindu other” as “exotic,” and by the Washington Post as “violent,” and by ignoring devout Hindus who are normal, modern, intelligent persons and who could be a physician, neighbor, classmate, boss or colleague.
As analogies, imagine if the dominant culture had appropriated articulate blacks to fight against civil rights, or if the male chauvinists had appropriated enough bright women to fight against feminism, or if gays were to be hired by institutions to refute gay rights’ discourse. Besides derailing the minority movements, such a sellout would have also harmed American society in the long run while helping make a few big careers in the short term.
That this strategy – of getting bright Indians to fight against India – continues to succeed is a tribute to the long-range impact of the British colonialists.
This trend is now being spread like a cancer by Indian brown sahibs based in the West and with followers in India’s elitist higher education, media, and most of all, foreign-funded NGOs (Non-Government Organizations). The fight between India’s Left and the Hindutva Right (in which I distance myself from both sides because neither side is sufficiently in tune with the overriding global forces at play), is a subset of the bigger global project of exacerbating the “Indians versus Indians” cleavages. (See my Human Rights’ Other Face , Conversion Agenda , Indians undermining India.)
In my telephone interview with the Post’s journalist, Mr. Vedantam, and in follow-up emails to him, I had focused mainly on the above issues of the power-equation concerning the construction and distribution of knowledge about India. Besides ignoring my central thesis in its article, the Post has also failed to provide me an opportunity for rebuttal and correction, even though I have written to it that I was the main person named and was (mis)quoted by it.
Therefore, just as my Sulekha article exposing CNN’s bias favoring Pakistan over India had pressured CNN’s headquarters in Atlanta to initiate a dialogue with the Indian-American community, I hope this Sulekha article will cause some honest introspection in the hallways of Washington Post’s media circles.
After Mr. Vedantam had called me for an interview and also asked for leads for his story, I wrote to him cautioning that “a lot depends on how things are framed.” My point is that if an interview with President Clinton was framed in the context of sexual harassment, Clinton would come across negatively, whereas if he was interviewed in an article about social-security reform he would be seen in another light. Therefore, I wrote Mr. Vedantam an email explaining the importance of properly framing his article:
“If the framing is about dangerous Hindu hooligans attacking scholarly Western academicians…then the setup would work against me, no matter what. It would be party A making accusations against party B (within this overall framework), and B would be depicted as a defendant denying the charges. On the other hand, it could be framed as the [academic] Empire now doing what the British Empire [of Indologists] once did by way of a hegemonic construction of Indian culture, in tacit and/or explicit support of evangelists and/or [Indian separatist] subversive activities. Here, I would be a voice of dissent causing anguish to a Goliath not used to being criticized by the very culture it denigrates with impunity. This framing would be Gandhi’s satyagraha, Nader’s consumer activism…If the academics or their PR firms approached Washington Post for the story…then the die would have been cast in favor of the former framing already by the time you interviewed me. As you know, framing is everything.”
However, I did not suspect an ambush from the nation’s most prestigious daily newspaper.
I also wrote to him about my position as follows: “I have championed the case for de-monopolizing the religious studies by adding practitioner-scholars…What we seek is the same kind of seat at the table of discourse about our tradition as blacks have in black studies and Jews, Christians, Muslims etc each have in their respective portrayals. But when the native informant starts to answer back it is seen as an “attack” because they are just not used to treating us as equals. However, over the past 32 years since I have been in the US, Indians in many other professions have upgraded their standing and are not second class anymore – so why not in the academic field of religious studies? Why is that a bastion of prejudices still? It is only a matter of time before they will realize that the field will get enriched and expanded with more voices. My sense is that this resistance comes from the old guard who has lots to lose.”
Hinduism has an old tradition of debate and criticism and this must be encouraged in order to continue to develop and not become frozen into a canon of final truths as in the case of the Abrahamic religions. There are multiple sides to the truth that are legitimate, but Mr. Vedantam did not do justice to the counter-views to the thesis he had set out to promote.
Post ignores the debate:
I further suggested that Mr. Vedantam should contact both sides at Emory University who are engaged in the debate about the denigration of Ganesh by Courtright. A Diaspora group of successful corporate executives, entrepreneurs and academicians, called “The Concerned Community” is representing the Hindu position, while Emory is being represented by Prof. Flueckiger and the Dean. (Neither side asked me to be included, so I was never present, even though I was told that both sides cited my writings on Sulekha.) Unfortunately, Mr. Vedantam’s article did not reflect that debate at all.
Is the Gita a “dishonest book”?
Wendy Doniger’s telling statement, as quoted in the Philadelphia Enquirer, that “the Gita is a dishonest book,”which sparked the whole matter, is not even mentioned by Mr. Vedantam. How are the Post’s readers expected to evaluate the “reaction” of the Hindus when they are not told what exactly Doniger said that caused their anger? Mr. Vedantam camouflages Doniger’s denigration of the Gita and many other hate-ridden statements by dignifying her work as “academic” and “scholarly” use of “Freudian psychoanalysis” of Hindu texts and symbols. The reader is left imagining a bunch of irrational and emotionally charged Hindus ganging up against some high-flown scholarship.
Post ignores academic criticisms of Doniger’s school:
Mr. Vedantam ignored several links that I sent him of the writings of Harvard’s Professor Michael Witzel, in which Witzel concretely and authoritatively criticized Doniger’s mis-translations of Indian texts. (See: Witzel debunks Wendy – examples # 1; #2)
Prominent psychology researcher, Dr. Alan Roland, has written extensively to explain the serious flaws in Doniger’s methods, but Mr. Vedantam did not refer to this or any other major criticisms from various important academic scholars. Also, I suggested that he interview Prof. Antonio deNicolas, Prof. Balagangadhara, Prof. Ram-Prashad Chakravarti, Prof. Shrinivas Tilak, Prof. Narasimha Sil and many others who have been involved in this controversy for years, and who are within the academic community.
For example, Mr. Vedantam interviewed Prof. Ramdas Lamb, a white American academic scholar of religious studies who is a Hindu. Prof. Lamb provided direct examples of prejudices against Hinduism and personal instances of being targeted as a Hindu scholar by the academic establishment.
Post ignores Doniger’s refusal to debate:
Mr. Vedantam also failed to point out that when my criticism of Doniger/Courtright was about to be published, Sulekha.com wrote multiple times to Prof. Doniger to invite her to write her side of the controversy on Sulekha. But she wrote back, refusing each time. Furthermore, I have saved about a dozen emails which I wrote to Prof. Doniger (that were copied to many of her peers), asking for her critique of my draft paper so that her side may be included as well, but she refused arrogantly and wrathfully.
Post ignores why Doniger was dropped by Microsoft:
Mr. Sankrant Sanu wrote a thoughtful critique of Microsoft Encarta’s treatment of religions, by comparing how it portrays Hinduism, Islam and Christianity on specific topics. Mr. Sanu’s comparison led Microsoft to reach a carefully informed decision to discard Prof. Doniger’s article on Hinduism, but the Post concludes with the suggestion that there was racial bias because Doniger’s name is not Sharma. However, Prof. Doniger’s article should have been removed even if she had changed her name to Wendy Sharma. The objections were to the validity of her scholarship, not to her last name.
It is telling that Prof. Doniger is defended not on the basis of her positions but through attacking those who raise objections to her scholarship. The suggestion of racial bias is a repugnant, convenient ploy to divert attention. If Prof. Doniger were secure in her scholarship, controversy about her background would not be an issue.
Post rationalizes Courtright’s “limp phallus”:
The Courtright controversy is about that author’s fabrications, such as his claim that Ganesha’s trunk represents a “limp phallus” so that Ganesha would not have sex with his mother, Parvati, in competition with the “hard penis” of his father, Shiva. Without pointing out that there was no authentic basis for this, Mr. Vedantam tries to rationalize Courtright’s claim as legitimate “scholarship” and caricaturizes me as being emotionally “offended.” He is also wrong in stating that “Malhotra’s critique produced a swift and angry response from thousands of angry Hindus” who wrote to Emory University’s president. In fact, it was two years after my article that the Atlanta Diaspora wrote to Emory, and their action was precipitated by evidence that the Baltimore museum had used Courtright’s views to interpret Ganesha’s imagery in their exhibit and book used to educate American schoolchildren about Hinduism.
Post confuses unrelated matters:
The Laine book controversy is entirely unrelated to the Courtright controversy, and Mr. Vedantam’s use of the former to frame the latter is an act of irresponsible sensationalism. To help Mr. Vedantam on the complexities of the Laine issue, I had sent him a link to a set of balanced articles in Outlook India (India’s leading left-of-center magazine – also see latest update), along with the following perspective:
“The ban on the [Laine] book, international prosecution of the American author, and tacit support for the violence came NOT from BJP-affiliates but from the Congress affiliated NCP which runs the state government in that given state…Maharashtra’s politicians are fuelled by local cultural sentiments just as in USA or elsewhere. Shivaji is hero #1 no matter which party wants the votes…It’s interesting that in framing this issue, the point noted above…has been ignored in all the discourse on RISA lists about this controversy and in other Western media coverage.”
It is important to distinguish between ethnic chauvinism and religious chauvinism, even though both are bad. Ethnically speaking, just as there is Texan chauvinism, French chauvinism, Chinese chauvinism, Japanese chauvinism, so also there is Bengali chauvinism, Punjabi chauvinism, Tamil chauvinism, Kashmiri chauvinism, Maratha chauvinism, and so forth. The Sambhaji Brigade which was accused in the attack is not a Hindutva group but a Maratha (ethnic) group opposed to BJP and Hindu Brahmins, and their vandalism of priceless Sanskrit manuscripts cannot be portrayed as a “Hindu” act. This was recently explained to me by Maharashtrians who classify themselves as leftists, and who saw the book as a distortion of Maratha’s secular history. So the Post is blatantly wrong in insisting on a narrative of Hinduism causing vandalism, and also in claiming that Hindus consider Shivaji’s parents to be divine.
Similarly, the attack by Wendy’s Children against Sri Ramakrishna angered Narasingha Sil, a leftist Historian, who made it clear that he is not a Hindu but that his Bengali sentiments were hurt by what he regarded as academic fraud.
Post ignores similar protests from non-Hindus:
I am not in favor of banning any books, because I prefer that the opposing voices should be given comparable distribution channels to express their side. Regardless of one’s position on this, the principle of consistency and symmetry should be applied to all religions. Therefore, Mr. Vedantam should have contextualized his story by mentioning the West Bengal state’s Communist government’s ban on Taslima Nasreen’s autobiography, Dwikhandita, because that book was offensive to Indian Muslims, and the US media’s decision not to show a controversial documentary on Ronald Reagan because of public sentiments.
Just this past week, M.F. Hussein, India’s best-known artist, completely withdrew his movie, “Meenaxi,” with no more than a graceful remark that “some Muslims took exception to one of the songs.” The fierce objection from many powerful Muslim groups was on a relatively mild problem (as compared to the academic scholarship that Ganesha represents a limp phallus), namely, that the name of one song was a phrase that refers to Allah in the Quran, and that its use to honor the heroine was an act of blasphemy. Unlike Courtright, Hussein did not make any attempt to turn this into a campaign to be seen as a “victim.” Nor did Indian writers protest against any of these violations of “intellectual freedom,” because the institutional scripts they follow did not encourage them to do so.
Good journalism for Post to learn from:
One must note that The New York Times also had similar Hinduphobic tendencies for years, until it replaced Barbara Crossette and Celia Dugger with Amy Waldman. Ms. Waldman has started to write with balance and understanding of Indian culture. Unfortunately, Dugger seems to have recently returned to theTimes, and the same old India/Hindu denigration has resumed. Perhaps, the Post should consider hiring Ms. Waldman to upgrade its knowledge of India.
Sankrant Sanu, whose critical review got Wendy Doniger’s article thrown out from Encarta, is described by the Post as a “Hindu activist”. By labeling him in this way, Mr. Vedantam diverts the focus on the “branding” of the critic rather than on the substance of his position.
While I prefer that a person’s intellectual positions should be evaluated only on their own stand-alone merits and not framed by the individual’s personal affiliations, any labeling or absence of it must be applied consistently for everyone. Furthermore, even when the protagonists might be engaged in name-calling, a journalist of a respectable paper claiming to report from a neutral position cannot be biased in the use of labels.
Post fails to label Vijay Prashad as “communist activist”:
Vijay Prashad, who is quoted to oppose me, is introduced by Mr. Vedantam simply as a college professor from Trinity College, whereas it is his non-academic affiliations that are more relevant to his intellectual positions on these issues. To be equal in labeling all the individuals he quoted, Mr. Vedantam should also have labeled Vijay Prashad as a communist activist, because he is the most prominent US-based advocate for the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
Furthermore, Mr. Prashad’s widely read article, “An Afro-Dalit Story,” has generated awareness and sympathy for leaders of the Afro-Dalit Project, which is a politically charged revisionist history claiming thatDalits are Indian blacks and that non-Dalits are Indian whites, and that Dalits are slaves of Indian whites. Under the umbrella of fighting racism, the project (supported by segments of the Christian Church in its attempt to divide Indians) superimposes the US black/white racial tensions onto Indian society. Potentially, this is a dangerous tool to sow the seeds of discord and violence between African-Americans and Indian-Americans because such communal divisions are already proving to be deadly within India. The violent Dalit Panthers group in India and the Dalitistan separatists are all based on this bizarre “academic” account of history. In fact, some Dalit leaders are very critical of Vijay Prashad, because they see him as a high-caste communist opportunist and find his methods of championing the “downtrodden” to be inauthentic. Mr. Prashad has denied supporting the Afro-Dalit Project, but he is in the midst of several controversies and Post’s readers would be able to situate his remarks better if they had his background.
Nor did Mr. Vedantam introduce Mr. Prashad as co-founder and leader of FOIL (Forum of Indian Leftists), a role that is widely promoted and one that Mr. Vedantam knows from my debate with Mr. Prashad that I had referred him to. Clearly, if Mr. Vedantam wanted his readers to think of Mr. Sanu as a “Hindu activist” while evaluating the critique of Encarta, by the same token, he should have also made sure that his readers would know of Mr. Prashad’s Communist Party’s fights and FOIL’s fights against Hinduism.
An example of FOIL’s anti-Hinduism is its rejection of Mahatma Gandhi’s favorite spiritual song that was specifically meant to syncretise Hindu-Muslim names for the Supreme Being, i.e. Ram and Allah, respectively. FOIL activists write:
“FOILers had made the request that we not sing bhajans such as Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram among our group chants…Several anti-communalism efforts possess a very romantic notion of Hinduism in their condemnation of violence…Besides, many expressions of patriotism have become indistinguishable from Hindutva discourse – for instance the phrase ‘Jai Hind’…Without de-centering Hindu idioms and Indian nationalism, we will remain only nominally, not genuinely, a South Asian group…“
The mindset reflected in the above quote deepens the separation between Hindus and Muslims rather than fostering their integration into one community. Since Hindus would not object to Muslims singing Islamic songs that would also include respect and praise for Hindu deities, it would be better to equalize through mutual inclusion rather than exclusivism. Furthermore, the term “Hind” was how the Mughals and the more recent 20th century Muslim scholars (including Iqbal) referred to the sub-continent that the US State Department has re-named as “South Asia.” One wonders why all these anti-nationalists accept the redefinition of identities forced by India’s partition (an act of “nationalism”) and by US foreign policy towards non-Western “areas” (another act of “nationalism”). Is the Hind that was so dear to the Mughals and to Iqbal being rejected just because the scholars work for Western institutions?
Post ignores India’s Evangelism-Left axis:
To fully understand what is behind the so-called objective scholarship and reporting about Hinduism, one must see this as an extension of Indian politics. A good example is the recent reporting on Hindu schools spreading in India’s tribal areas, which is a four-part issue in which most reporters and scholars conveniently omit the parts that contradict their personal politics:
- 1) Part 1 is the decades of foreign-funded Christian evangelism in India’s tribal areas. Texas-based “Gospel for Asia” is one example: Its fund-raising video tapes proudly advertise its aggressive sales campaigns against Hinduism. These tribal conversions to Christianity have created vote banks for Indian Communists who collaborate with the missionaries in a deal whereby the missionary harvests the soul while the Communists harvest the vote. This over-aggressive evangelism has utilized the spread of false information about Hinduism. There have been many reports that these forces are promoting separatists in India. No treatment of India’s religious tensions can legitimately skip this religion-politics-globalization axis and jump straight to the Hindu response as though it were the first cause.
- 2) Part 2 is the Hindu response, as recently explained in NDTV’s article. This response has consisted of establishing Hindu equivalents of Christian missionary schools, and this has succeeded in taking votes away from India’s Communist parties which collaborate with Christian missionaries for religious vote banking. The RSS has been called the “Baptists of India.” For centuries, Christians have promoted education as their entry strategy into heathen territory worldwide, and now Hindus are merely using the same strategy in reverse.
- 3) Part 3 is the propaganda in US mainstream media and academia in which Part 1 is completely ignored, and the story is contextualized starting with Part 2 as “Hindu fundamentalists” conning NRIs to send money to these Hindutva schools. (See example.) There has been a massive US campaign led by Vijay Prashad against the Hindu educational response in tribal India, without ever mentioning his own conflict-of-interest: His Communist Party of India (Marxist) is the major recipient of the votes of Christianized Indian tribes.
- 4) Part 4 is the missing balanced analysis that could only come from writers who are not politically invested in the left/right dichotomies and who have taken the time to honestly research all sides of these complex matters. An unbiased analysis would have to compare: (i) the tribal “Hindu education” with the “Christian education” by missionaries, (ii) the role of tribal education to construct political constituencies (i.e. vote banking), and (iii) the role of global funding sources in each, including the quantities of funds involved. One must understand the axis between religion and all political parties in India, between political power and the distribution of bribes, and between global religions and internal centrifugal forces. Indian Left’s strange role in all this, unknown to Western readers, is explained inRamachandra Guha’s critique of the Indian Left as identity politics with caste as the “fundamental axis of Indian society.” Those who try to resist these foreign-funded centrifugal forces are being simplistically branded as “fundamentalists”, “nationalists,” and other pejoratives.
Post ignores evangelism’s role:
Furthermore, given his style of labeling certain individuals, Mr. Vedantam should also have explained that Emory University is run by the Methodist Church, and should have given the backgrounds of some of Emory University’s powerful faculty who have pulled strings on the Courtright controversy. A prominent figure in this has been Prof. Joyce Flueckiger, Director of the Program in South Asian Studies where Paul Courtright works.
Mr. Vedantam failed to report that Ms. Flueckiger was born and brought up in a family of fundamentalist Christian evangelists in India, as explained in the following Atlanta magazine article: “The relationship she shares with India seems to be genetically inherited as her parents were Christian missionaries there, and spent 41 years of their lives in Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh. Her dad ran a boarding school of higher secondary education and also trained Indian Christian ministers and pastors, while her mom worked on development projects for women.” (Atlanta Samachar, July 3 – July 9, 2003, page 10.)
Ms. Flueckiger specializes in doing “field work” in India’s backwaters, in the heart of the politically charged tribal areas where foreign-sponsored Christian evangelists and Maoists confront authorities in what often leads to violent clashes. The “field data” about such clashes may be presented in Washington, DC, before the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, to prove human rights violations by India against Christian evangelism. The public description of her specialty is to “research on modern Indian attitudes on religious traditions, women and the role they play in religion.” She has conducted many year-long projects in India, presumably to discover innovative ways to “save” the poor heathens who are suffering under the burden of Hindu culture. She is reported to be “passionate about India” and has great “fondness” for it.
When she reached age 18, Ms. Flueckiger went from India to USA to go to the Christian fundamentalist college, Goshen College, whose web site describes it as “a four-year residential Christian liberal arts college rooted in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition. The college’s Christ-centered core values…prepare students as leaders for the church and world.”
Her college goes on to describe its core values as follows: “We are led by Christ in our search for truth. Corinthians 3:11: ‘For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ’…As a learning community, we foster a journey of lifelong learning, encouraging one another to seek truth with fervor. This spirit of academic excellence enriches our relationships, our world and our faith in Jesus Christ.” The college authorities then invoke further Biblical quotations to tell students that “we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” The college’s education mission statement lists “Christ-centeredness” as its primary core value.
Prof. Flueckiger now serves on the prestigious Executive Committee of the US Government’s American Institute of India Studies, making her a politically powerful person in this field.
Scholars like to have their work seen as being separate from their personal lives and ideologies, and are most uncomfortable when the potential biases implicit in their personal lives get exposed. Mr. Vedantam’s introduction of her and of Mr. Prashad as “college professors” is a common way of hiding all personal biases behind the aura of objective truth.
Post should level the playing field:
Ms. Flueckiger must instruct her PR people that they should not drag into the discourse the “Hindu activist” branding of others, because it would invariably boomerang against the scholars and their institutions, since they would also be exposed as being neck deep in political-religious agendas. Hopefully, scholars shall focus on the intellectual positions of others as being stand-alone propositions worthy of critical examination, in the same way as they want their own work to be treated.
It would be an interesting exercise to evaluate to what extent some of these India Studies scholars are academicians with political/religious beliefs, and to what extent they are politicians or evangelists who have infiltrated academics as an ivory tower for distributing their ideologies.
The personal affiliations of Vijay Prashad, Joyce Flueckiger, Wendy Doniger and Paul Courtright must be given the same kind of branding as the article gives to those being labeled as “Hindu activists”, “Hindutva”, “fundamentalists”, and so forth. Hence, because Prof. Arvind Sharma is referred to as a “practicing Hindu,” Mr. Vedantam should have introduced Vijay Prashad as a “Communist activist,” Emory University as being a Methodist Church institution whose South Asian Studies department is being run by a “fundamentalist Christian evangelist with family-run conversion programs in India’s tribal areas.”
Alternatively, he should use my advice and leave everyone’s personal beliefs out and take their intellectual positions seriously. The cardinal principle that I asked for and was denied by Mr. Vedantam is symmetry of portrayal.
For removal of doubt, I wish to clarify that I am not troubled by Ms. Flueckiger or anyone else being a Christian fundamentalist or about Mr. Prashad being a Communist. Each of these ideologies has many positive things in it, while I disagree with many other aspects. In fact, I have been involved in an internet debate with Vijay Prashad, during the course of which I have gained an appreciation for many of his positions and activities. We agreed to avoid personally labeling each other and to debate only the issues and positions on a stand-alone basis. I do not wish to pry into any scholar’s private life and all the facts given here are from public sources on the Internet.
My point in citing personal ideologies of scholars is only to show inconsistencies in the style of Mr. Vedantam.
Post ignores academic dissention:
Finally, to reduce the feeling of polarization between the academy and my positions, I must mention the breath of fresh air that comes from certain scholars who dare to dissent, such as the email on risa-l by Prof. Pratap Kumar, an Indian Christian settled in South Africa, who criticizes the privileging of Christian approaches in the study of Hinduism in the so-called “secular” institutions:
“Christianity is the only religion that is taught at Universities with so many sub-disciplines such as New Testament, Christian Theology, History of Christianity, Old Testament, Practical Theology, Christian Ethics, Missiology and Evangelism and Christian Education…[T]he theological method that has dominated the teaching of Christianity has somehow been introduced to teach all the other religions…[Furthermore,] most of the religions in the west are taught by non-Hindus, Non-Muslims and so on…Christianity should be taught in the same way as any other religion would be. The study of religion would be liberated when Christianity would be taught by non-Christians just as any other religion would be at the universities. This would then not only level the playing fields, but also address the rather awkward question as to who speaks for Hinduism or Christianity or Islam…”
Prof. Young from Canada was even more direct:
“Hindu studies are the only example I know of where a religious tradition is taught primarily by outsiders, and while it was at some points in the past hard to know how to remedy that, we owe Rajiv Malhotra a small bit of recognition for making us see how very odd that really was.”
Mr. Vedantam characterizes my dissent against the India Studies establishment as an act of “public relations” for India, Inc. He uses a quote from Mr. Prashad that such PR should be exclusively the job of the Indian government.
To appreciate how ridiculous this position is, consider that an equivalent proposal would be that criticisms of mis-portrayal of blacks in America should be a PR job solely for African governments. Besides being impractical, if it were implemented, it would undermine the hard-earned progress in African-American Studies.
Post ignores Hinduism as an American religion:
Mr. Prashad also fails to consider that Hinduism is an American minority religion, just like Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Wicca, etc., are, and that Americans have every right (and responsibility) to defend it against false stereotypes. His blind spot is the result of South Asianizing the discourse wherein Hinduism is denied legitimacy outside its ethnic South Asian contexts. While Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and Judaism are treated as world religions, many scholars continue to limit Hinduism as exclusively a study of South Asian geography (alongside snakes and monsoons) with no universalizable value.
But an increasing percentage of American Hindus are born in USA and are not South Asians as such. Besides the second-generation NRIs, there are 18 million white Americans who practice yoga as a physical and/or spiritual discipline, meditation, vegetarianism, Ayurveda and other Hindu practices. Within that number are white Americans who call themselves Hindus. Unfortunately, the view of Hinduism as an ethnology, which is brought about by conflating the anthropology of South Asians with Hinduism, permeates India Studies. This robs American Hindus from active participation in contemporary American civic life as practitioners of a universal faith.
Furthermore, India’s secular constitution makes it tough for the Indian government to do what Mr. Vedantam calls “PR,” for Ganesh or any Hindu deity. If the Indian government were to do this, one may expect Mr. Prashad to attack it as “saffron” policies of the government. So his position is self-contradictory. Also, should Mr. Prashad’s own “activism” be viewed as PR for the Communist Party of India (Marxist), operating from US campuses?
Post ignores American multiculturalism dynamics:
Mr. Vedantam should research how other minority cultures are representing themselves positively in the US. As exemplars of cultural ambassadorship and as potential role models, I pointed out to him that I had studied the work being done by the Japan Foundation, China Institute, Korea Foundation, Tibet House and various others. Many Europeans, including the French, Germans, Italians, English, Irish, etc. also play a far greater role in their cultural portrayals in the US education system and media than do Indians.
Post ignores the example of Japan Studies:
One finds that Japan Studies chairs, programs and academic faculties greatly outnumber those established in India Studies, demonstrating that American political and commercial interests have driven the humanities, and not a purist or “objective” criteria. Why should India be considered less important than Japan, which has one-tenth of India’s land and population? Why does Japan have a massive academic division all for itself, whereas India is lumped alongside several other countries into a tiny “South Asian” category?
The emphasis on Japan in Asia Society and various universities’ Japan Chairs was largely corporate-funded. Academicians are uncomfortable acknowledging that their institutions are not entirely driven by “academic freedom” but are powered more by the strategic interests of the American polity and also by the financial clout of a given nation in international economics. Aren’t these scholars who are supposedly leftist/liberal, anti-imperial, anti-colonial etc., operating with double standards? Mr. Prashad should rethink his advice.
In fact, one could argue that there is less change going on in Japan than in India, and hence, the latter deserves more funding for research and teaching in order to replace the old school thinking. Furthermore, if India’s geopolitical/economic importance today could be approaching that of Japan’s 25 years ago, then why do we not have the same kind of groundswell of support for India Studies today as we saw for Japan Studies 25 years ago? Why is there no massive rethinking and realignment of academic India Studies?
Most serious professions periodically subject themselves to such critical self-reflection, and bring in outside consultants for evaluation, rather than becoming defensive when reasonable issues are raised. The academy must correlate the trends in country-specific themes over the past 25 years with US geopolitical and economic interests at a given time. An objective report would also point out that many “India experts” today are simply in the wrong kind of specialty – i.e. they are in the “caste, cows and curry” kind of scholarship – and that their re-training in mid-career might not be easy. So a real problem causing angst in the academy against independent watchdogs could be its unwillingness to address the issue of deadwood amongst academic peers.
Post ignores Pakistan Studies:
Indians would be even more surprised to learn that Pakistan has a stronger positioning in many South Asian Studies departments than does India, despite the fact that Indian faculty and students far outnumber Pakistanis. For example, the Pakistani web site, Chowk, proudly reported: “The highly acclaimed Center for South Asia Studies at the University of California at Berkeley held its 19th South Asia Conference...It appears that the ‘short list’ has finally arrived from Pakistan as to the choices from amongst which one person will be the first academic to hold the new Quaid-e-Azam Chair of Pakistan Studies at U.C. Berkeley.”
Some Indian-American scholars attacked me on the H-Asia internet list of Asian Studies scholars, because I had suggested that there was a Quaid-e-Azam Chair at UC Berkeley and that the selection was influenced by Pakistan’s government. My whistle-blowing angered the scholars, who insisted that they had only “objective” and “academically independent” programs and that there was no such Pakistani chair. However, the above quote from Chowk clearly proves them wrong. (I suppose, because of my whistle-blowing here, Pakistan’s government and the US academy will stop mentioning these ties publicly!)
Another prominent example of US-based influence is Farooq Kathwari, a businessman and Chairman ofEthan Allen, who is a hardcore pro-Pakistani lobbyist and who is funding a Kashmir nationalist group in USA with considerable political backing from certain US politicians and from South Asian Studies scholars, including many Indian-Americans. For example, Gauri Vishwanathan, Director of Southern Asian Institute, Columbia University is amongst the academic leaders who facilitate academic forums where Mr. Kathwari and others such as Saeed Shafqat, Quaid-e Azam Distinguished Professor of Pakistan Studies, Columbia University, get their political positions legitimized as “objective scholarship.”
Post confuses education as PR:
A good example of positive re-education about Islam in USA is the new course on Islam prepared by Prof John L. Esposito of Georgetown University. The motive there is the opposite of denigration under the guise of “academic freedom.” Rather, it is to reduce the level of Eurocentrism and Christian-centrism that is sweeping the nation. One is hard pressed to find very many such examples about teaching positively on Hinduism on a large scale.
A different trend that is disturbing is that the US Congress is considering a new bill that would further expand the teaching of “Western Civilization” at all levels, implicitly equating patriotism with Eurocentrism. Its dangerous effects of xenophobia at home, in foreign policymaking, and in the global economy must be considered carefully. The traditional strength of America has been its assimilative quality, which is now taking it away from its European/Western origins towards Asian and other cultures. This must not be reversed, or else America could become stifled as another Japan-like homogeneous aging population that would lose its innovation and global competitiveness.
Freedom and censorship
At a recent conference in Ohio, I was delighted when Prof. E.C.G. Sudarshan, twice nominated for the Nobel Prize in physics, and the event’s honoree, mentioned in his acceptance speech that he very much appreciated my work against academic monopolies of knowledge, and that he wanted to lend his support to me. He went on to explain that in physics, it was perfectly okay to criticize scholars’ work in order to point out possible errors. He was horrified by a paper that had been presented on the previous day (by a young Indian-American scholar from UC Berkeley), in which the unfortunate ban of Laine’s book was somehow conflated with my work that was completely unrelated to Laine, and in which my criticism was being labeled as an attack on “academic freedom.” Academic freedom, explained Prof. Sudarshan, did not give immunity to lie and get away with it. It was not at the expense of anyone else’s right to criticize.
In anticipation of any accusations that this Sulekha article “censors” Washington Post, I wish to say the following: Only those in power over the institutions of knowledge production and distribution have the capacity to censor, and clearly, it is the Post which enjoys overwhelming superiority in readership and brand credibility over any medium available to argue my side. Whistle-blowing and bringing attention to prejudices is not censorship.
In light of this accusation by some scholars, that my criticism denies them “academic freedom”, I present two lists of activities below. The first list shows the academic system’s techniques which I feel results in their controlling the knowledge flow. The second list contains what I advise dissenting voices to do in order to try to change the established discourse. I believe that the first list limits the discourse while the second expands it. But each reader must decide which of these two would expand the discourse and hence freedom, and which one amounts to censorship.
List #1 – Power over India Studies:
There are many methods being used by those in power to control the content and channels of information. These methods include the following:
1) Funding of India-related studies is dominated by the US Government, Christian Churches, certain Christian private foundations (such as Pew Trust, Templeton Foundation, Luce, etc.), various “secular” Western foundations that are rooted in Western frameworks and categories (such as Ford, Macarthur, etc.), and Western universities. These funds are also funneled through complex and often hard-to-track ways into India’s NGOs, higher education and English language media. Grant applicants know what to propose in order to maximize their chances of being funded.
2) Dissenting perspectives are at first discouraged by the established scholars, and if they persist they are simply ignored. This could be either subtly applied, by including the dissenting perspective as a nominal side-show without mainstream coverage, or it could be blatant by organizing a formal boycott. For instance, it is common practice for many scholars not to show up at events where the speakers would include those critics who are outside the control of their coterie of peers.
3) The scholars in power rarely invite genuinely dissenting voices as equals on their own panels. When such voices show up in the audience, they get tagged once their direct and embarrassing questions become known, and the underground network rapidly spreads rumors about them as undesirables and trouble-makers. The result is that at future events, the moderator/chair tries to not even acknowledge such questioners from the audience.
4) A very common technique is to criticize dissenters in absentia. For example, Paul Courtright has been recently traveling to speak at half a dozen universities. I have been the main target of his attacks at these talks, and yet nobody in the system has had the decency of even letting me know of these events in advance, much less of inviting me to participate and be able to give my side of the facts. However, at one recent by him, “Studying Religions in an Age of Terror,” in Chicago (1st April, 04), thanks to a couple of honest and courageous academic scholars, Courtright was confronted by the audience with some hard issues, and he felt stumped as he had not anticipated criticism. This hit-and-run tactic consists of first using a forum where the dissenting individual is absent or even disallowed membership, and second by disallowing the dissenter the opportunity to respond in a balanced forum.
5) The branding-labeling of dissenters in pejorative ways serves to discourage readers from delving into the issues, because most people are too busy to be able to invest quality time on such matters.
6) Insiders who join or support the dissent often get black-balled and their careers suffer. On the other hand, those who mimic the obedient Indian role-models promoted by the establishment enjoy fast-track advancement.
7) Indian scholars engaged in post-colonial studies are usually ill-equipped in any non-Western epistemologies, and hence they utilize the very same Western epistemologies that they claim to criticize.
8) The academic system controls from within who is licensed to do scholarship (e.g., by admitting only those who have Western humanities credentials), and hence who is to be able to criticize.
9) When there is a closed circle (or cartel) of experts in a specialty, the peer-review process can itself be a form of censorship, as explained in my extensive article on The Peer-Review Cartel.
10) Many Western-based South Asian Studies scholars are members of or are affiliated with specific Indian political parties and/or political NGOs. These NGOs range from Dalit separatists, Christian proselytizers, Communist parties, etc., just to name a few. Western academic positions are used to provide forums of respectability, fund-raising and travel sponsorship for their Indian political counterparts. This utilizes the credibility of the Western-based scholars’ institutional affiliations, to bring credibility to their India-based political partners. Meanwhile, the Indian side of this axis provides filtered data to the Western-based scholar, as well as an organized channel in India to distribute the ideology of the Western-based scholar. In this regard, my suggestion a few months ago to Mr. Prashad that all such affiliations should be disclosed is yet to get a response from him. Only such a transparent disclosure would tell the public the extent to which certain academic scholars double up as US-based branches of specific political parties and movements in India.
11) The movie, Schindler’s List, has a powerful scene in a Nazi camp: An S.S. guard is angry at the Jewish inmates because the construction work is not progressing well. So a young and confident Jewish woman walks up to the guard and says politely, “Sir, I am an engineering manager by profession and, if you allow, I could lead this project and get the work completed.” The guard instantly points his pistol at her head and shoots her dead on the spot. The lesson is that leaders of dissent are to be targeted, as they are considered dangerous because they have the capability to explain things to their people and to get them to revolt. I have been successful in bringing important issues to the attention of the general public in a language and style that is accessible and forthright. Hence, they asked Mr. Vedantam to portray me as the ring-leader to be targeted. In fact, Mr. Vedantam wrote to me implying that I was considered “dangerous” by Wendy Doniger, and he seemed to expect me to accept this characterization. But he has failed to provide a criteria or any evidence of being “dangerous,” and relies entirely on Doniger’s wrathful outpourings.
12) Different yardsticks are being applied to Hinduism as compared to other religions, when loaded terms like “fundamentalism” or “intolerance” are used. A Christian’s or Muslim’s tolerance is not expected to include his/her willingness to withstand insults against his/her religion; but a Hindu is declared as intolerant if he protests when his faith is insulted by zealots. Similarly, religious fundamentalism should mean exclusivism, especially when it is based on a literal interpretation of religious texts. By this definition, the vast majority of American Christians and the Muslims of the world are fundamentalists, as per surveys by Pew and Gallup. Hindus have no requirement for exclusivism or evangelism, and do not need the de-legitimization of other religions as a precondition to legitimize their own. However, the term “fundamentalism” is routinely applied to dissenting Hindus without any critical review of what they are dissenting about. When such flaws are pointed out, the individual is demonized as a fanatic, simply for speaking up and challenging the discourse.
List #2 – Satyagraha methods:
To break these monopolies and to de-censor the field, the following list gives some of the techniques that dissenting humanities scholars and public intellectuals should consider adopting:
1) Indian-Americans who have become successful in a non-academic field, and who are assertive, articulate and autonomous thinkers are perceived as a threat to the humanities’ establishment when they start to get involved. This is partly because the system cannot control such persons by using its normal carrots and sticks, and partly because such individuals are self-assured because they have succeeded in competing with Westerners in their professions. The humanities lag behind other professions where Indians have pierced through the glass ceiling, such as information technology, medicine, engineering, science, finance, corporate management, and entrepreneurship. The Western Grand Narrative does not yet have standard scripts for Indians in India Studies to be challengers of established theories and positions, in the same manner as Indians in these other professions have rewritten the scripts (and in some cases the trajectory of the professions themselves) of the American Grand Narrative to make themselves equals.This is what the humanities must learn from other professions where Indians have broken through walls and ceilings. So we have a tale of two kinds of NRIs in America: shiners and whiners. The whiners are in professions that (i) pay less than the shiners make, (ii) are still under the Eurocentric glass ceiling, but (iii) are very influential as writers, journalists and humanities scholars of Indian culture and identity. The shiners’ kids are nowadays being mentored by the whiners to become South Asians in US colleges.
2) Gandhi’s satyagraha method shows us how to intellectually challenge in a defiant tone, yet from a position of moral authority and intellectual competence. Those with academic tenure should join the non-academicians in satyagraha, as their service to their own profession, to their traditions, and to the American nation. Unfortunately, few so far seem to have the required combination of selflessness, clarity and courage.
3) Product innovation can overcome monopolistic controls over the channels of distribution. (See example of one such project.) Also, one may identify new target audiences that the academic establishment has ignored, and develop new distribution channels to reach them: Diaspora adult education, children’s education through animation and computer games, and web-based education are some examples of considerable potential.
4) Direct criticism of the establishment in front of the financial donors would result in a decline in donations to abusive programs: This is reported to have happened at Emory University already, causing the establishment to take this matter very seriously and to launch its counter-offensive using PR to plant articles in the mainstream press. (Harvard also faces resistance in its $15 million fund-raiser from Indians, given the community’s awareness about some of its biased work. A growing number of NRIs see Harvard’s South Asia program as one of the top sepoy academies, in sharp contrast to the positive role of its business school and other programs.) Such financial pressure forces the promoters to pay closer attention to the issues being raised, rather than flippantly dismissing these complaints or turning them over to hired public relations firms to influence journalists.
5) Young academic scholars who are not yet on a sepoy-in-training track should get briefed on these various moral and intellectual issues from a variety of perspectives so they can act as independent thinkers.
6) India-based pandits, native informants, journalists and NGOs should get briefed on these issues, so that some of them might refuse to get appropriated. Those who continue to get appropriated would at least negotiate higher compensation as their price to sell-out, and this would adversely impact the system’s ability to procure a large army of such resources.
7) The most important point to bear in mind is what not to do: Under no circumstances should a dissenter encourage or endorse, even implicitly, anyone who advocates the use of violence. Besides legal and dharmic breaches, this would surely backfire against any legitimate goals. Rather, one should constantly use Gandhi’s method to raise the moral and intellectual standard and compel the other side to match.
Censorship is the enforcement of monopoly over knowledge. Only a party with power and authority over the system of knowledge production and distribution is capable of censorship. The dissenting voices lack the required systemic authority to be able to censor. Therefore, no amount of protests from outside the gates of power can be considered as censorship.
Is Post unaware of Dotbusters?
The Infinity Foundation has recently sponsored a research project for two college professors to document the history of the “Dotbusters,” a violent crime gang in the 1980s that specifically targeted Hindus in New Jersey. (The “dot” in the name with which they signed their criminal acts referred to the bindi on Hindu women’s foreheads.) Preliminary examination of the archive shows that this gang was largely driven by Hinduphobia involving ignorance and stereotypes.
My Chinese-American and Japanese-American friends were surprised that there had never been serious US academic study of the Dotbusters, whereas the academy has studied other Asian minorities’ struggles. While it is fashionable for South Asian Studies to have media events, conferences, seminars, PhD dissertations and courses on human rights violations in India (especially those where Hindus get accused), ironically, the land which exports human rights and studies others’ violations has not studied the killings of Hindu Americans right here at home.
This new research project will allow us to compare today’s media Hinduphobia with that which informed the Dotbusters.
Little India magazine’s November, 2003, issue gives statistics on an enormous increase in hate crimes against Indian-Americans – crimes that are specifically against ethnic/religious identities. Recent research available from Pew Trust shows a disturbing trend, namely, that Americans believe Islam to be the highest and Hinduism to be the second highest cause of religious violence, while rating Christianity as the religion that is least prone to causing violence. In another recent survey cited by Prof. Wuthnow of Princeton University, 25% of Americans associate Hinduism with “fanaticism.”
Such false stereotypes reflect poorly on the media’s performance in informing the public.
The American public badly needs to be positively re-educated about minority American religions, but Washington Post seems to have unintentionally spread Hinduphobia.
The term “Islamophobia” has been successfully coined by academicians and public intellectuals who are keen to expose and dispel the biases against Islam. A Google search on “Islamophobia” gave 27,300 hits. By contrast, a Google search on the category, “Hinduphobia” gave only 29 hits. What does this lack of public awareness about Hinduphobia tell us?
Indian writers’ inferiority complexes:
Until I came across the Indian-American author, Richard Crasta, I had believed that such prejudices were being caused mainly by Westerners. However, Crasta explains that these biases are amplified by a mindset that afflicts many Indians because of their own inferiority complexes. In his provocative book,“Impressing the Whites: The New International Slavery,” he writes that “ethnic shame is a phenomenon that is particularly intense among Indians abroad and particularly those in the U.S. and U.K… Ethnic shame is the opposite of ethnic pride…”
Crasta goes on to explain the role of certain well-known US-based organizations in cultivating this Indian identity shame and Hinduphobia:
“Indeed, many of these immigrants are so terrified of voices that may offend the Masters that they will themselves act as filtering devices, as local policemen of thoughts. Organizations like the Asia Society, South Asian Journalists Association (SAJA), and many ethnic newspapers regularly act as cheerleaders for those Indians who have impressed the whites, and as bouncers to keep their scruffy and impolite brethren from disrupting the harmony: on one occasion even trying to drop a ‘trouble-making’ Indian author from the program at the Asia Society.”
Once I became open to examining Richard Crasta’s perspective several years ago, I started to examine the evidence carefully and realized that his courageous thesis had merit. He shows that Hinduphobia is often a subconscious conditioning of Indians: “The carrot and stick are so discreetly transferred by Third World writers onto their internal censor that they are often unconscious of their own self-censorship.” Ironically, this coterie of self-alienated Indians is being deployed by the academic/media establishment to attack the dissenting voices. Might Mr. Vedantam be an unwitting victim of this malaise?
Furthermore, the system has created career incentives to encourage Indian journalists into cultural self-castration. SAJA gives Mr. Vedantam importance partly because of his affiliation with the Post, as this helps to legitimize SAJA in the eyes of young journalists looking for media contacts and jobs. Mr. Vedantam, in turn, consults SAJA friends and adopts their biases, such as the biases reflected in his article, and so becomes a hero for them. Like any system built on power, it is a closed and self-sustaining system to control the information channels and to perpetuate itself.
After her New York trip with SAJA journalists, Tavleen Singh wrote an excellent analysis of Indian journalists’ inability to interpret India, much less to be able to predict future trends. She explained how these Indian journalists often have serious blind-spots in their understanding of India. Because Western and often Indian media looks at SAJA as a credible source for referrals, SAJA’s new leaders should do some introspection.
SAJA’s tilts on content/framing and on who gets the awards and various speaker spots are a projection of the systemic biases, often unconsciously applied. The trend has been to pander to the Celia Duggers and Barbara Crossettes of the media world as credible authorities on India, even though they tend to be unimportant in the mainstream American media and have poor educational backgrounds on India.
Journalism and Hinduphobia: The principles on which such hatchet jobs are done in the mainstream may be summarized as follows:
1) It is assumed that most readers do not have the time or wherewithal to delve into the details for themselves. Therefore, given the credibility of brand names like Washington Post, readers will believe whatever is dished out to them – a case of credibility by association. This means that the Western biases are most dangerous when planted into the minds of Indian writers and when such Indians get planted into jobs in mainstream academia and media.
2) Given that this asymmetric power resides in the hands of a few, they can and do take liberties with the facts. This is often done by the tilted manner in which they: (i) contextualize the issue, (ii) frame and brand certain individuals while placing others on pedestals as being objective, and (iii) use a juxtaposition of unrelated data that is cut-and-pasted into a guilt-by-association scenario. As demonstrated in the Post’s article, serious intellectual discourse gets conflated with the angry outbursts of a few unrelated Hindus, so as to make all Hindu dissention appear as fanaticism.
3) Each time this exercise is repeated successfully, the negative brand management program (i.e. Hinduphobia) becomes stronger, thereby making the next episode of cultural demonology that much easier to construct and sell. The system is self-replicating and can lead to catastrophic consequences.
Hinduism and Stockholm Syndrome:
Hinduism is squeezed both from the American right and from the Indian and American left. The right backs the Christian fundamentalist goals of converting India and targets Hinduism as the last remaining and most resilient bastion of pagan culture in the world. The intelligentsia of the left is more complex and diverse in its reasons for the thoroughgoing bias against Hinduism and Hindus: (i) there is a holdover from an era of allegiance to pro-Communist movements; (ii) there are fifth-column opportunist double agents; (iii) there is a fundamental discomfort due to misunderstandings that Hinduism runs counter to modernity; and (iv) there are social stigmas that article’s such as the Post’s promulgate.
The net effect of this is that many Hindus are intimidated into accepting every insult that is hurled at them, for fear of being subjected to further harassment. This may be viewed as a sort of societal Stockholm Syndrome. The case for Hinduphobia as an instance of societal Stockholm Syndrome is supported by the following facts:
1) Most Hindus deny the existence of Hinduphobia, and many interpret the episodes that are pointed out as positive markers of their tolerance. Since many NRIs feel lucky to be able to enjoy lifestyles which their parents lacked, they do not wish to rock the boat. Hence, they prefer to hide their Hindu shame behind complicity or outright support of Hinduphobia.
2) The lack of available research materials on Hinduphobia, as contrasted with Islamophobia (even before September 11, 2001) and on other kinds of xenophobia, indicates disinterest or even suppression of the phenomena on the part of the academic scholars entrusted with Hinduism Studies. This could partially be guilt or fear that the scholars might be responsible for their complicity.
3) The few individuals, such as myself, who do speak up and point out instances of Hinduphobia get fiercely attacked by the academic establishment, especially if they locate the causes in the intellectual discourse.
In this regard, Hindus are very different from all other American minority groups. The overwhelming majority of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, blacks, gays, Hispanics, etc., publicly claim their identities with pride and they protest when falsely stereotyped. In doing so, these other groups enhance America as a powerful multicultural society, a responsibility that Indians have yet to understand because of the vast differences between the nature of Indian and American approaches to secularism: While Americans publicly celebrate their many distinct religious identities, Indians were raised after independence to fear distinctions based on religion, seeing distinction as a cause of conflict because such conflicts were exploited by the colonial masters.
Xenophobia and violence:
In order to appreciate the seriousness of cultural branding, readers must introspect on the following question: Does the Western media’s and public’s apathy towards Iraqi civilian casualties (which has nothing to do with one’s views on the war against Saddam’s government) correlate with perceptions of Iraqi culture, and did Western media’s choice of images of Iraqi culture play a role in creating these (mis)perceptions? In other words, if the war had been against a white Christian country (say France, hypothetically), might things have been different?
Furthermore, history shows that genocides have been usually preceded by the denigration of the victims’ identities – showing them as irrational, immoral, unethical and/or worshipping “false gods” and “idols”, i.e. as not deserving of the same human rights extended to “good” people. How does today’s Hinduphobia (such as Hindus worshipping limp phalluses, pushing women to do sati, killing “innocent” missionaries, and nowadays “attacking” erudite scholars) compare with the Eurocentric scholarship in earlier times about Native Americans, Africans, Jews, Roma, and others, who were subsequently victims of genocide?
Educating Washington Post:
Given the seriousness of American Hinduphobia, Washington Post must review research data about the prevailing stigmas against Hinduism in America, and should also conduct surveys amongst its own readers (and its journalists and editors) to gain a better insight into the level of misinformation that exists even amongst well-educated Americans. This would enable it to better strategize its own portrayal of Hinduism, and to avoid inadvertently fueling more hate crimes similar to the Dotbusters. Given the emerging global role of India’s democracy, its developing economic resources, and its war on terrorism, Washington Post should also consider the negative consequences of its anti-Hinduism bias on Washington’s law and policymakers.
While responsible institutions like Washington Post are probably horrified at the thought of unintentionally spreading Hinduphobia, many Indian writers would rub their hands in glee for having hammered one more nail into the heart of Hinduism, because this enables them to disown an identity that has the stigma of being a scourge. Unfortunately, many such Indians are chowkidars (gatekeepers) manning the gates of the academic and media establishments and are deeply invested in them.
Meanwhile, the Hindu global gurus and most Diaspora leaders are on such lofty clouds that they are easily fooled by simplistic doubletalk of every religion being the “same”, with a few garlands put around their necks at public events, and with short-term personal popularities. They have superficial insights into the global processes at work, and are no match for the sophisticated intellectual machinery that has evolved over centuries by the more extrovert and expansive traditions.
Many well-meaning Indian Leftists need to seriously rethink, starting from global and not local issues, because globalization overrules and controls every localized issue today and this will increase further. Those opposing globalization should engage in a renegotiation of globalization rather than boycotting it. A reinvented Indian Left would have much to offer India and the world.
Finally, US policymakers on South Asia Studies should evaluate my thesis that any meltdown of India’s integrity as a nation-state would quickly facilitate Osama Bin-Laden’s successors’ mission to Talibanize South and Southeast Asia.
Journalists must ethically portray Hindus as an important American minority. To teach negative stereotypes about Indian culture would also be a disservice to the American generation that will deal with self-confident Indians in USA and in India’s global commerce.
The Washington Post’s article adds pressure to Hindus to not complain for fear of being tagged as “fundamentalists.” For, if Hindus ever raise their voices, someone like Mr. Vedantam will write an article about violence and threats involving Hindus, no matter how unrelated, and then juxtapose the given Hindu who is complaining so as to give the impression of guilt-by-association. This is analogous to blacks being made to fear that every time they complain some journalist will write about black crime and include them in the narrative as though they had something to do with it. Repressing victims of denigration is unhealthy for society and journalists or scholars who engage in this bear moral responsibility.
The thoughts proposed in this article are work in progress. They are intended to provoke discussion, and are expected to be changed and corrected. They are presented here in there current state of flux because of the urgency of the problem caused by the Post, i.e. with respect to exacerbating the Hinduphobia that permeates beneath the surface and yet remains deniable. The best way forward is to talk about these uncomfortable issues in the same manner as blacks forced discussions on racism in the public arena and women made male chauvinism into a new category for study. Let us examine instances and theories about Hinduphobia with an open mind.
Toffler, Alvin, 1990, “Powershift: Knowledge, Wealth and Violence at the Edge of the 21st Century,” New York Bantam Books. p.18.
 Galbraith, John Kenneth, 1992, “The Culture of Contentment,” Boston, pp.97-98.
 Visit these links:
1) The Uses (and Misuses) Of Psychoanalysis in South Asian Studies: Mysticism and Child Development by Alan Roland
2) Love’s Child: The Way Of The Gods by Antonio T. de Nicolas
3) India and Her Traditions: A Reply to Jeffrey Kripal by S. N. Balagangadhara
4) Kali’s Child: Psychological And Hermeneutical Problems by Prof. Somnath Bhattacharyya
5) Are Hinduism studies prejudiced? A look at Microsoft Encarta by Sankrant Sanu
6) When The Cigar Becomes A Phallus
7) Limp Scholarship and Demonology
8) Courtright Twist And Academic Freedom by Sankrant Sanu
9) On Colonial Experience and the Indian Renaissance: A Prolegomenon to a Project by S. N. Balagangadhara
10) Taking Back Hindu Studies by Shrinivas Tilak
11) The Dominance of Angreziyat in Our Education by Madhu Kishwar
12) Hinduism In American Classrooms
13) Think Before You Eat Sweets
14) ‘Secularism’, Colonial Hegemony and Hindu ‘Fanaticism’ by Arjun Bhagat
15) Could The Emperor Just Be Buck Naked? by V. Chandrasekhar
16) The Groan-I: Loss of Scholarship and High Drama in ‘South Asian’ Studies by Yvette C. Rosser